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Small Robots, Big Jobs

Photo of engineers
From L to R, mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Tom Bewley; and MAE grad students Andrew Cavender, Chris Schmidt-Wetekam, and Nick Morozovsky

As featured in the film Hurt Locker, small robotic vehicles already play a key role in the safe disposal of improvised explosive devices in modern urban warfare. As the military and industry work together to improve the performance of such existing robots, engineers at UC San Diego are exploring new roles for small robotic systems in combat. The families of agile, autonomous robotic systems they are developing are also expected to have significant roles in homeland security, border patrol, search and rescue, and planetary exploration.

In the UCSD Coordinated Robotics Lab, mechanical engineering professor Tom Bewley and his students, have just released the latest generation of their Switchblade family of agile treaded vehicles. Switchblade can pop wheelies, climb stairs and rubble, and carry substantial payloads such as real-time video; Light Detection And Ranging (LIDAR), an optical remote sensing technology; chemical, radiation and biological sensors; and GPS. The robot can also, literally, run circles around other treaded vehicles in its class, and can be produced for a fraction of the cost, according to the engineers.

"The focus of our lab is on an application of robotics that is today much less developed - the deployment of multiple inexpensive robots for the exploration of dangerous and confined environments, such as buildings, caves, mines, and tunnels," Bewley said.

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